Palo Alto's broad-reaching mental health coalition formed five years ago in response to teen suicides, Project Safety Net, today finds itself at a crossroads after losing its second director in two years. Largely exhausted and very eager to use $2 million in city funding to make progress on issues that still plague Palo Alto youth, city staff is recommending to the City Council's Policy and Services Committee next week not to refill the director position.
Project Safety Net last month suddenly lost Joe Herrity, who filled the position in June after it had been vacant for close to nine months. Herrity came to Palo Alto with six years of experience at a Milpitas nonprofit, Fresh Lifelines for Youth, that works with incarcerated and at-risk youth. Herrity resigned effective Sept. 23 to care for a family member who had been diagnosed with a serious illness.
Herrity had replaced Christina Llerena, a veteran social worker hired in the spring of 2012 to lead the community collaborative. She resigned after 16 months on the job, accepting a position with West Valley Community College, which offered benefits the Project Safety Net job did not carry, she said at the time.
Llerena declined to comment for this story. Herrity told the Weekly that as a single, 32-year-old with no children who was used to working in the nonprofit sector, the lack of benefits and low salary were not a problem for him.
The nature of the program director position it is hourly and offers no benefits or job security, yet expects a high level of work and leadership that reaches across more than 40 organizations, from the schools to faith groups to nonprofits has made it difficult to attract and retain a director, city staff has said.
"In our review of where we are today as a collaborative, we think that trying to hire again with the resources that we have -- in other words essentially an hourly person with no benefits -- we're not going to be able to get the kind of professional we would hope to have in this leadership role," said Rob De Geus, assistant director for the city's Community Services Department, the lead city department for Project Safety Net. "It's really a time to step back a little back and reflect on what alternative approaches we might use to hold the collaborative together."
Office of Human Services head Minka van der Zwaag said staff went looking twice for a director before hiring Herrity, not finding anyone suitable the first time. Before Llerena, the collaborative was mostly volunteer-led, with much of the work coordinating with member agencies falling on the shoulders of the city and school district.
"It's been a real challenge for the leadership committee and a challenge for Rob and I as the city staff that are related to Project Safety Net," van der Zwaag told more than 20 representatives from many of the collaborative's participating agencies -- Palo Alto Medical Foundation, the YMCA, Adolescent Counseling Services, Palo Alto Library, the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, among others -- at an Oct. 9 meeting, the first broad meeting of the group in months.
"To attract and retain a highly qualified professional to lead the PSN collaborative in its current structure, experience has demonstrated we would require a fully benefited position," the Policy and Services staff report reads. "Approximately seven years ago the City had a fulltime At Risk Youth benefited manager position that might have been an appropriate position to serve as the PSN Director, but that position was removed from the budget. Hiring an hourly administrative support staff remains feasible, but the lead facilitator role, albeit in a more limited capacity with respect to time, is recommended to be overseen by existing City and PAUSD staff."
In the wake of Herrity's sudden resignation, the Project Safety Net leadership team discussed what kind of structure could work best for the coalition moving forward.
Despite the staff report's explicit recommendation not to rehire a director, Project Safety Net leadership team members insist this is just one of many ideas percolating now. The group is in the early stage of a larger conversation, they said.
At the Oct. 9 meeting, staff said that one model could direct dollars previously spent on the director to programs, agencies or individuals working on issues around suicide prevention and mental health.
In 2013, the City Council allocated $2 million in health and safety funds to Project Safety Net from the Stanford University Medical Center (SUMC) Development Agreement, a deal struck between city and hospital so the university could massively expand its medical facilities. Of that, approximately $320,000 has been spent, primarily on salaries for the directors; support of TrackWatch, which provides security guards at two Caltrain crossings; and miscellaneous program expenses such as suicide prevention and youth well-being events, according to the staff report.
Project Safety Net has also received significant funding from the County of Santa Clara, parent volunteers, the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund, a Stanford University Community Partnership Award and the Palo Alto Firefighters' Pancake Breakfast fundraising event.
"This is something that ultimately we want to recommend," De Geus said of allocating funding directly to partners. "Project Safety Net is only as good and as strong as the partners sitting around the table that are actually out there doing the work. To the extent that we can leverage the collaborative and get funding out to our partners so they can do even more than they already do, we think that's a big part of what we ought to be recommending with the funding that's available. How we get that funding out to partners -- that's going to be a question that we need to discuss with our City Council."
Councilmember Gail Price, who has long worked with Project Safety Net and also serves on the county's Behavioral Health Board, stressed at the Oct. 9 meeting that such a model -- and working with such a significant amount of money -- requires systemic, thoughtful structure and accountability.
"I think, again, with this amount of money or the potential of using up to $2 million, it seems to me you need a focus and you need a structure and you need someone who helps lead that work," she later told the Weekly. "But I am reserving my full opinion until I see what the staff says; maybe they'll come up with two or three different models that make sense."
Becky Beacom, health educator with the Palo Alto Medical Foundation who has served on the Project Safety Net leadership team, said at the meeting that she's seen other collaboratives, sans a head or director, successfully rotate the leadership and coordinating role among agencies.
"The one thing that hasn't changed is people's interest in working on this," Beacom said. "It's just, how do we do it in a way that focuses our attention on the work rather than on administrative stuff?"
Beacom said much of the collaborative's work in recent years has been focused on process rather than action. A steering committee with 20 member organizations worked for six months to develop a "theory of change" document, whose adoption coincided with Llerena's departure. The new structure sliced the number of committees from seven to three and the number of anti-suicide "strategies" from 22 to nine.
Much of the next year was dedicated to the hiring process.
"I think that's part of the issue of momentum," Beacom said. "My feeling is, just bring us together and let this community do what this community does really well. ... The risk is if you don't bring people together, then everybody starts doing disparate things rather than having a strategic approach."
Price said Beacom's idea of a shared leadership model "can be very, very effective, but shared leadership where there's a potential of managing up to $2 million, that's a whole different story. Who owns the fiscal responsibility for managing the fiscal resources? That's the key difference."
De Geus also pitched at last week's meeting the idea of making a "bold investment," such as building a wellness center that would serve as home-base for all Project Safety Net members and affiliated programs.
PTA President Susan Usman lauded the idea of having a physical space that would be both a "one-stop shop" for youth and an anchor for the coalition.
"Project Safety Net needs an anchor," she said on Oct. 9.
Former program director Herrity called a wellness center "an appropriate and logical next step" for the collaborative.
"The entire effort is very beautiful. It's a true community response to a tragedy ... but what I might say is that that effort had a natural timeline to it because the further away you get from the point of crisis, I think the urgency wanes," he said.
"I think the wellness center is really, really the right direction to go because that is the pinnacle of collaboration between the city and the school district, in my opinion, and it creates an actual place, a physical place that is that expression of community support, unity and commitment to young people," he added.
Brenda Carrillo, Project Safety Net co-chair and student services coordinator for the school district, said other communities have seen successful outcomes from wellness centers that incorporate both mental and physical health for students.
"The wellness center we think has some merit in terms of enhancing the work that's already happening at the schools and it's something our schools are interested in. ... It's one of the options we're looking at, but we haven't landed anywhere as far as next steps on that."
Gunn High School is currently in the preliminary stages of designing its own wellness center, which could consolidate counselors, psychologists, Adolescent Counseling Services and perhaps college and career counseling in one space, said Assistant Principal Tom Jacoubowsky.
Staff will present their report to Policy and Services on Tuesday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m. in the Council Conference Room at City Hall. Policy and Services will then make recommendations to the City Council for next steps.
"The three key conversations that are the starting point of this are (with the) leadership team, our strategic collaborative partners and then our council, and we really feel like those triad of conversations are going to give the lead team and key city staff and school district staff the next steps to go on," van der Zwaag said.
View the Policy and Services Oct. 21 agenda here.